by Annette van de Kamp-Wright, Jewish Press Editor
Nancy and Phil Wolf are the recipients of the 2015 Phil and Terri Schrager Spirit of Federation Award. The award is given annually to a man and a woman who have demonstrated personal commitment, dedication and leadership to the Federation and/or its agencies.
Nancy and Phil moved here from Chicago in 1989 and have three children: Hannah is the oldest and is married to Mike Schmidt. They live and work in Omaha; she is a 7th grade math teacher in OPS, he is an attorney. Son Alex lives in Beijing, China, and works for a translation company, providing English subtitles for some Chinese TV shows. Then there is Nathan, who lives in Chengdu, also in China. He is currently enrolled in University to study Mandarin and has private students studying English and Math.
The most remarkable thing about the Wolfs is how many different organizations over the years have benefited from their dedication. Yet, they were very surprised to learn about the award.
“There are so many people who do so much, and our work doesn’t even begin to match up,” Nancy said. “These other people are the heroes. They believe in the possibilities of those people they are trying to help. Working with other passionate volunteers leaves me feeling energized and humbled.”
Nancy was involved with volunteering for the schools as their kids were growing up, served on the Omaha Public Library Foundation board, and volunteered in an ESL classroom in South Omaha for several years.
“Volunteering in varied capacities,” Nancy says, “has given me the opportunity to meet so many interesting and wonderful people! I’ve spent time with new immigrants learning English and trying to make a new life.”
She has donated her time and energy to The Salvation Army, the Munroe-Meyer Institute, and the United Way of the Midlands. She helped with the Women Build project of Habitat for Humanity, and together with her daughter Hannah, Nancy actually helped put up siding.
“In the Jewish community, I am on the boards of ADL and the Jewish Press, as well as Secretary of B’nai Israel Synagogue,” Nancy says. “I have helped Chabad in various ways for several years. I will never forget the beautiful Israeli family who came here so their baby boy could receive multiple organ transplants, and then needing to return again after five years for additional help. Rabbi Mendel Katzman asked if I could help coordinate rides that first time (18 months!) to medical appointments, grocery shopping, etc. It turned out to be life-changing for them, and for me.
Phil’s volunteer activities have been within the Jewish community, including the synagogues, the JCC and committee activities with the Federation. One area that stands out is his coaching which, according to him, “was one of the most nerve-wracking and rewarding things I have ever done.”
“I got into coaching purely by accident,” He recalls. “It was a team of kindergarteners, boys and girls. The established coach was going to be out of town and could not otherwise find a sub, so I sort of had to do it. With no prior experience, I worried about it all week before the first game (and during the week before every game for years). Finally, it dawned on me to approach the kids based on what I had been thinking while watching from the stands.
“It was supposed to be a “no scorekeeping” participation league, but I knew from my daughter’s involvement that the kids all knew what was going on. The notion I had was, yes, all the kids would play as equally as possible at those young ages, but it did not make sense not to try to win. It was not that we had to win, but rather, if we did not try to win, we would not have an object around which to organize, and I thought the kids needed that. If we won, we won, and if we lost, we lost, but we would get the kids playing together around that object.
“So, that first game, the kids gathered around, really young kids not knowing me at all (except for my daughter Hannah), and I asked them if they knew they had lost all their games to that point and if they wanted to try to win. Interestingly, they all admitted knowing they had lost and nodded enthusiastically about trying to win. They were each assigned a role so they could think about what we were going to do as a team. We won the game and the coach called me the next week and said he was turning over the reins.
“I am not sure how much of a coach I was, but I continued with it for 14 years including at the Maccabi Games, as long as my own kids played. My last team was the JCC team for eighth grade boys with my youngest son in that group.
“We had some really good teams and always had great kids. The experience of coaching would be hard to replicate in any other endeavor. I still run into the “kids” now and then, and that rekindles a lot of nice memories.
“Coaching at the JCC was also my entrée to the wider Jewish community as there were kids from all of the synagogues on the teams at one time or another. I came to know many families and am very grateful for the trust they placed in me.
“We learn in Jewish teachings that there are obligations without measure, whose reward is without measure,” Nancy says. “How many times do we need to be reminded to help clothe the needy, take care of the widow and orphan, etc.? Therefore, some volunteering opportunities are obligatory. But after becoming conditioned to say yes when understanding there is need, and being able to witness the positive effects, volunteering definitely becomes a privilege.”
“As to the Jewish world,” Phil adds, “it is both a privilege and an obligation. Somehow, I got here and it must have been on the backs of those who came before. It is a privilege to be part of the residue of what came before, and it is a duty for me to put forth some effort so that their prior work will not be for nothing. It should not end with me.
“We have children and, while they sometimes left me wondering whether they ever paid any attention, we know they saw and will remember what we have done; our involvements connoting the Jewish community’s importance to us. Seeing where we were, through visible activities or presence at the various institutions within the Jewish community, as well as watching/listening/thinking about who we were with, how we spent our time, what we were reading and our conversations, our children would know there is no question of our Jewish identity. They have free will. We know that. But we want it to be extremely tough for them to ever walk away.”